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January 31, 2018

How the week that nearly derailed Eagles' season actually made them more prepared for Super Bowl

One of the many defining moments of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2017 season, a season that for better or worse will come to an end on Sunday when they take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52, came in Week 14 when starting quarterback Carson Wentz threw a go-ahead touchdown a few plays after tearing his ACL and LCL while diving for the goal line. 

Another moment came shortly after, when backup Nick Foles led the Eagles down the field for a game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter against the Rams, helping his team avoid a second-straight loss that could've sent the Birds into a free fall.

While that week may be remembered as the most important of the regular season because of what happened to Wentz on Sunday, it's what took place over the days leading up to that game that may help the Eagles throughout the week leading up to the Super Bowl.

Unlike most of the other professional sports, football doesn't have road trips in the traditional sense. Sure, they play half their games on the road, but there's nothing that compares to a baseball or basketball team playing away from home for a week or more at a time, without their families, practicing at different facilities, sleeping in a hotel every night, etc. Normally, NFL players fly in the day before a game and head home a few hours after it ends. 

Until they reach the Super Bowl. 

However, that's not quite the case for the Eagles this year, who actually spent the week leading up to that Rams game in Los Angeles and gained some important experience that is likely going to help them in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. Unlike the Patriots, who were just on this stage last year, the Eagles only have a handful of players with Super Bowl experience. But, thanks to a break from the scheduling department, they didn't come into this week totally unprepared.

The Birds actually lobbied the NFL to have two of their West Coast games scheduled for consecutive weeks so they could do this, and the league obliged by scheduling the Seahawks, who they lost to in Week 13, and Rams back to back. 

And while the original intention of that week-long L.A. trip probably had little to do with helping them prepare for Super Bowl week, a lot changed over the first three months of the season and suddenly the Eagles were 10-1 heading into Seattle. They were the favorites to win the NFC. And head coach Doug Pederson realized then the impact this trip could have down the line.

"We talked back then that this was sort of a precursor for hopefully this opportunity," Pederson said recently. "Kind of going through it a little bit with the team hotel, the meetings, the travel to a practice site, the media obligations and things like that. Now having been through it, it makes it a little bit easier going up to Minneapolis. But it's just on a grander, bigger stage, obviously.

"So the attention will be a lot more. There will be a lot more distractions, a lot more pulling on coaches, players, and personnel. Having gone through it in L.A. has really given us a leg up."

With all those distractions – not to mention unfamiliar surroundings – Pederson plans on controlling the things that he can, much like he did in Los Angeles. Like, for example, how his team prepares for Sunday's game. 

"The practice schedule this week won't change from what we did back in Philadelphia," Pederson said Tuesday. "We'll keep it the same, keep the guys in the routine we've been in the last several weeks. I haven't decided yet [if we're going] to go in pads yet; we were in pads all of last week and had some really good practices. It's about staying fresh and getting guys ready and I haven't decided [whether or not we're going in pads] yet."

As for the unfamiliar surroundings – the team is practicing out of the University of Minnesota – Pederson doesn't seem as worried. He believes that if his players can stay focused on the game, while still being flexible enough to handle all those extra interviews and press appearances, the rest will work itself out.

"The setup over there is really nice. The University of Minnesota has done a great job for us and is allowing us to use their facility," Pederson added. "So that's going to be a great place to practice and get our work in this week. The week itself, we've got a lot of obligations, guys get pulled in a lot of different directions. But as we begin the work week, and focusing again on the football game, we can't lose sight of that either. 

"There is a game at the end of the week, and my job is to make sure the guys stay mentally plugged in this week. That's why the routine will remain the same. And then we'll adjust, remain flexible and whatever we're asked to do, we do. But at the same time, we stay focused on the task." 

For as much hype as the game gets, it's still a game. It's 60 minutes of football played in front of a live crowd similar to every other game these guys played this season. Sure, the crowd at home is quite a bit larger and the stakes are considerably higher, but it's still a game. 

Of course, there's also the longer halftime, up from 12 minutes during the regular season to a half hour for Sunday's big game. But Pederson has a plan for that too:

“It is a long time, pre-game and halftime,’’ Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday during his news conference. “I’ve begun conversations with our players preparing them for it.’’

Part of that preparation Wednesday was a “mock’’ halftime during the team’s practice at the University of Minnesota.

“We’ve done a lot of research on when exactly we can get (back) out (on the field),’’ special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said Wednesday morning... “Today at practice we’re going to kind of go through a mock halftime situation deal. We’re going to stop, go in the locker room, do what we do on game day and then come back out. So that should be good.’’  []

In addition to being thrust onto sport's biggest stage and a longer-than-normal intermission, the players have to deal with all those aforementioned distractions as well. It's something they don't typically have a chance to prepare for unless they've played in a Super Bowl before.

But, as we've come to learn, this Eagles team is anything but typical.

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